One of the pleasures of researching a biography when the subject has died only recently is getting to know his or her surviving friends. In 2005 I was preparing an article about Denys Sutton, who edited Apollo for a quarter of a century between 1962 and 1987 and died in 1991. Several friends put me in touch with persons they knew who had known Sutton. Among these, and not the least impressive, was Sir Michael Levey, the National Gallery’s Director from 1973 to 1986 and the author of many books on art and music as well as a contributor to Sutton’s Apollo (and Alan Ross’s London Magazine).
At the time when I was exploring art in the seventies and eighties, Michael Levey’s A History of Western Painting from Giotto to Cézanne, Rococo to Revolution and Early Renaissance were remembered among the few books on the subject that could be read with pleasure. In addition, Michael Levey had been the husband of Brigid Brophy, famous in the sixties and seventies for her sparkling novels, her essays in The London Magazine and The New Statesman, the television literary quiz Take It or Leave It and various crusades. A bisexual and a vegetarian before it became fashionable, she worshipped Jane Austen, Shaw, Mozart and Ronald Firbank; about the last two she wrote perceptive and enthusiastic books. During the seventies Brigid Brophy, principally with her then friend Maureen Duffy, as well other writers, including Francis King, Michael Holroyd, Lettice Cooper and Michael himself, was a tireless campaigner for Public Lending Right so authors would be paid in a kind of royalties for the books being borrowed from public libraries. After years of battle PLR was put on the statute book in 1979. Alas, at the end of the same year, Brigid Brophy was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. This put an end to her witty and original fiction, even if she still managed to write a children’s book and some essays, including a searing account of her gruesome illness in her Baroque ‘n’ Roll. Her husband nursed her devotedly through this ordeal, taking early retirement from the National Gallery in 1986 to take over her full-time care. Not long after the couple left London, with their daughter Kate and her young family, for Louth in Lincolnshire, where the Fir Close nursing home specialised in MS patients. After Brigid died in 1995 Michael went on living in Louth, where his daughter and her family were now established, rather than returning to London. ‘For decades I believed that I couldn’t live anywhere else [other than London]. Now I shrink from even the prospect of a day trip. Odd; like a love-affair that is simply finished,’ he wrote to me somewhat later on 22 June 2006. The only occasions he mentioned to me on which he had made trips to London were to see the National Gallery’s Velazquez exhibition in autumn 2006, the Royal Academy’s portraits show of spring 2007 and the National Gallery’s autumn 2007 ‘Dutch Portraits in the Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals’. Once a star of cultural London, he now shunned the capital as determinedly as P. G. Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth.
At first, he wrote to me as ‘Dear David Platzer… Yours sincerely’, and on a typewriter rather than a word processor. After a long telephone chat followed by letters, we were soon on Christian name terms, the typed letters replaced by hand-written postcards. He remembered Denys Sutton, as did all of his contributors, as opposed to his assistants, with great affection and gratitude. Michael and Denys had in common having read English at Exeter College, Oxford with the legendary Nevill Coghill as their tutor – Sutton in the thirties, Michael after the war. More importantly they shared, as Michael wrote to me about Sutton, an ‘enjoyment of a sensitive, sensible and discriminating kind, not neglecting to apply scholarship… but ultimately savouring – and striving to convey – his own personal reactions. For that reason, I think, he greatly admired Kenneth Clark, and though I might have some reservations, I broadly concur.’ Sharing such a philosophy made their differences with regard to politics seem trivial, Denys being a robust old-fashioned Tory, as readers of his Apollo editorials could never have doubted, Michael as an old-fashioned Socialist. Michael recalled Denys’s amusement when a Russian lady told him that his beard made him look like Lenin – incongruous indeed given Denys’s staunch right-wing politics.
I sent Michael a copy of my article when it was finished. By then our correspondence had expanded into other matters as well. Somewhat to my surprise, I soon discovered that Michael was as curious about me as I was about him and less diffident than I about pressing for more information. Having learnt that I had been at a drama school, Studio 68, he wrote of his love of the theatre and the cinema (divulged in his memoir of his early life, The Chapel is on Fire). He loved reading books about actors and directors. His perceptions of both were invariably cogent. On Visconti, he judged in a letter of 5 December 2007 that ‘His [Visconti’s] exquisite visual perceptions almost spoilt him for telling a story. He lingers too long and is … dreadfully self-indulgent. Perhaps a collaborator would have helped?’ In his letters, he wrote enthusiastically about biographies of Billy Wilder and Katherine Hepburn. I was surprised that Michael, who had been a fan of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood since his childhood, had not read Flynn’s My Wicked, Wicked Ways, one of the very few show business memoirs to be a classic. When Michael borrowed the book from the library he found, writing to me on 29 October 2007, that ‘in a way, it’s a sad story, for he was intelligent without being sufficiently intellectual, and despite its sexual drive couldn’t direct his sex life satisfactorily.’ When I mentioned Peter O’Toole’s excellent books he told me that he had not read them but remembered a supper with Brigid, O’Toole and his then-wife, Sian Phillips. ‘Wildly entertaining he was, without entirely monopolising the conversation – sort of languid charm, Irish in origin, maybe?’ Michael himself was partly Irish and known for his wit in conversation. The memory made me think not only of O’Toole but of what I had heard about Michael and Brigid’s fame in sixties London.
Michael, co-author with Brigid and Charles Osborne on a 1967 literary squib Literature We Could Do Without, had strong likes and dislikes. Rembrandt seemed his least admired Old Master, Velazquez one of his favourites. ‘For me Velazquez is immeasurably superior to Rembrandt,’ he told me on 29 October 2006 after visiting the National Gallery’s exhibition devoted to the former. Ter Borch and Jabob Ruisdael were both Dutch seventeenth-century painters he loved and felt were ‘under-estimated’ and he also far preferred Frans Hals to Rembrandt as he wrote to me on 30 August 2007. He had written an indispensable Painting and Sculpture in France 1700-1789 and was rarely happier than with Watteau, Fragonard and Boucher. ‘He [Fragonard] is one of the few artists who is both sexy and witty – suggestive even in the very crease of a pillow,’ he wrote to me on 29 October 2007 after I had sent him postcards from that month’s Paris Musée Jacquemart-André’s Fragonard exhibition. By contrast the only musical disdain he ever expressed in his letters to me was for Verdi. However, he was known to place Bach and Beethoven below his adored Mozart about whom he and Brigid had both written books, she Mozart the Dramatist, he The Life and Death of Mozart. In literature he read Jane Austen and Vanity Fair – ‘a tonic’ – again and again. He told me that he and Brigid had been ‘v. fond’ of Iris Murdoch, whom I admired, without caring much for her books: ‘Iris was truly delightful to know but after Under the Net her novels never appealed to me…’
Unlike most art experts of his generation, Michael had not thought of himself as a confined specialist. ‘Not wishing to be treated like a donkey, I deny having a field,’ he wrote in his Rococo to Revolution. He saw himself as a writer who wrote about art rather than an art historian per se. ‘I am still struggling to escape the art historian label … since I have never been an academic art historian and quite glory in the lack of academic training in the subject.’ His excellent Sir Thomas Lawrence was being published around the time our correspondence began and Michael was seeking another commission to write a book – and not necessarily an art subject. None of his three published novels had been much noticed in the way his art books had been, and he was eager to write another: ‘I keep having an idea for another novel … I’d like try my hand again.’ In my old-fashioned way I thought of Michael as someone famous and admired, and for whom it ought to be easy to get a commission for anything he wished to write. Alas, book publishing has changed over the last thirty years. ‘I am having great difficulty in finding a publisher for potential books not on art history. All has got so much harder, I fear, with the advent of accountants everywhere … and brave or enlightened, or authoritative editors in retreat…’ he wrote to me on 22 February 2006. Sadly, he was having difficulty finding a commission even for a book he had in mind on Canaletto. ‘The possibility that I simply won’t write any more books has to be faced,’ he wrote on 5 September 2007.
Michael’s letter and postcards suddenly ceased at the beginning of 2008 and I heard that he had died at the end of that year. I wish now that I had written to him at least once over the months to say how much I missed him. Re-reading his letters now, I am deeply touched by them, not least for his encouragement of my own writing of a novel and his support in a difficult situation that befell me during this time. I miss him and I always shall.